By the end of Arthur, a remake of the 1981 Dudley Moore comedy, it’s hard to believe that Russell Brand’s back doesn’t give out, sending the English funnyman crashing down to the floor. For nearly two long, dragging hours, Brand carries the entire weight of screenwriter Peter Baynham’s script on his vibrant shoulders, never losing momentum or underselling a joke.
His admirably committed performance is all for naught, though, since Arthur is little more than a series of lazy sight gags and pointless asides. When the funniest thing about a movie is the sophisticated Helen Mirren saying “poppycock” while wearing a Darth Vader mask, there’s trouble afoot.
Brand is front and center throughout Arthur, playing a billionaire slacker who never leaves his high-rise Manhattan home without his flask of booze and spends his mother’s earnings on “poppycock” like a tricked-out Batmobile and a bed that hovers in the air above a giant magnet. His drunken and immature escapades begin to scare investors off from the family business, which prompts his emotionally vacant mama (Geraldine James) to present an ultimatum: marry her top employee, Susan (Jennifer Garner), or get cut off from the familial cash flow. He unhappily agrees to the marriage just as he meets his humble dreamgirl, Naomi (Greta Gerwig), an unlicensed tour guide who lives in a grungy Queens pad and defies all that his family’s name represents.
Through it all, Arthur has Hobson, his live-in nanny of 30 years played by Mirren. Arthur’s best moments come from the classy English vet’s playful banter with Brand. As bizarre as it sounds, a buddy comedy focused on the two of them would’ve been a much better movie, one that ignored various scenes of the utmost pointlessness. Nick Nolte shows up, for example, as Garner’s surly father just to growl his way through a nonsensical bit of father/son-in-law intimidation involving a nail gun and a table saw. Also distracting from the Mirren/Brand highlights is Luis Guzman, a usually effective comedic performer neutered of his abilities in a throwaway role as Arthur’s driver. All the How To Make It In America star does here is either stand around silent in suits or stand around silent in a belly-shirted Robin costume.
Worst of all, however, is Arthur’s undercooked courtship of Naomi. Gerwig, so impressive alongside Ben Stiller in last year’s indie dramedy Greenberg and in her mumblecore films, plays Arthur’s love interest too lightly. Having worked with strong dialogue in the past, she recites Baynham’s hammy lines with the verve of a Shakespearean actor auditioning for the Farrelly Brothers. Gerwig’s flatness derails her already stilted “romantic” scenes with Brand, which, as a result, deflates the film’s emotional weight.
"'Arthur' is little more than a series of lazy sight gags and pointless asides." Previously a co-writer for Borat, Baynham curiously applies that film’s same episodic feel to Arthur, which wouldn’t be so bad if any of the quick bits were, you know, funny. For no good reason, Evander Holyfield makes a cameo as Arthur’s in-home training partner, and you might think, “They’re not going to resort to a tired ear-biting punchline here, right?” And, lo and behold, there’s a joke about chomping off the boxer’s ear that Tyson neglected. Between Baynham and first-time feature film director Jason Winer, Arthur shouldn’t be so replete with half-assed laughs. While Baynham has Borat to his credit, Winer is an executive producer on ABC’s sharply hilarious Modern Family—clearly, they know a thing or two about good comedy.
Their combined knowledge is a non-factor in Arthur, though. It’s clear that some deal-makers in penguin suits felt the need to thrust Brand onto American pop culture with the quickness, forcing their hands rather than taking the time to develop a solid vehicle for the guy. Rather than tap into the sly yet droll wit the comedian-actor exhibited in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and in a lesser though still memorable degree in Get Him To The Greek, Winer bets the farm on Brand’s more kinetic side, the uncontainable energy seen in his MTV Video Music Awards hosting gigs.
But if Forgetting Sarah Marshall taught us anything, it’s that Brand’s at his best in a smaller co-starring role that injects his unique sensibilities in well-paced doses. In Arthur, he’s asked to do too much. At one point, Winer calls upon Brand to be a physical comedian on top of a sprinting horse, but all the actor can do is make bug-eyed faces and scream like a little girl (not funny). And then come the gratuitous “serious” moments, in which Brand unconvincingly emotes; he still seems on the verge of cracking a joke whenever his sad faces emerge (not heartbreaking).
As Mr. Katy Perry’s first leading man pitch toward Hollywood acceptance, Arthur misses the mark; as a comedy without any additional behind-the-scenes context, it’s an overlong slog. It’s not time for Brand backlash just yet, though; we’d gladly welcome another match of wits with Mirren, or new flick under the Judd Apatow banner. Quick, somebody call Aldous Snow.